Stressed? How to relax in the modern world

What are the negative effects of stress? What are the benefits of relaxation? What are the different types of relaxation techniques? Should you be mediating? exercising? detxoing from technology? Spending time in nature? All these questions are more answered below.

If you’re not feeling up to a long read check out this short video with Dr Abbey Davidson (Osteopath):

Defining stress and relaxation:

Relaxation is the state of being calm and free from tension or anxiety. Relaxation has benefits for both our mental and physical health. This article will discuss the negative impacts of stress, the benefits or relaxation and specific relaxation techniques you can utilise to improve your stress levels.

Stress is an inevitable part of daily life and ranges from minor annoyance’s (like spilling your coffee or missing your bus) to more serious stresses (like financial trouble or a family illness). When we think about evolutionary times; stress was very useful. If there was an animal hunting us for its dinner our stress response would help us get out of danger. In the modern age physical stressors are becoming less common and we are more prone to using our stress response to react to social situations. Therefore our bodies can interpret  a social stress, like homework deadlines, to be as severe as getting attacked by a tiger.

Physical, mental and emotional stress are unavoidable so it is important to make the practice of relaxation part of your weekly if not daily routine. This will help you manage stress better when it occurs and prevent the collaborative buildup of stress.

Negative effects of stress:

Stress is necessary for survival but prolonged stress can lead to profound negative health effects. Stress results in the release of “stress hormones” like epinephrine and cortisol.

It is common knowledge that stress is bad for us. The following lists some examples of the negative impacts stress can have on our bodies:

  • Poor mood
  • Poor tolerance to pain
  • Chronic pain
  • Muscle tightness
  • Fatigue
  • Poor concentration
  • Forgetfulness
  • Negative emotions (guilt, depression, anger, etc.)
  • Poor immunity (prone to getting sick)
  • Poor sleep/insomnia
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, diabetes and
  • Fertility problems
  • Digestive problems

If you suffer from high stress levels and experience some of these symptoms it is time to enact small lifestyle and start in-cooperating relaxation techniques into your daily routine.

Benefits of relaxation:

Relaxation and specific relaxation techniques have been shown to have the following benefits:

  • Decrease blood pressure/heart rate
  • Improves digestion
  • Reduce muscle tension
  • Increase pain tolerance
  • Improve concentration
  • Improve mood
  • Improve fatigue/energy levels

Even if you are currently not in a stressed state you can still receive the benefits from  participation in regular relaxation techniques.

Relaxation techniques:

Relaxation should be something we all practice on a regular basis. There are certain ways or techniques we can use to practice relaxation more than just doing activities we find relaxing. These include:

Breathing techniques:

With stress our breathing will automatically become shallower. This decreases the amount of oxygen in our bodies and reduces the supply to our organs, muscles and the brain.

Deep breathing sends signals to our brain to relax and stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest” nervous system). Breathing techniques Increase our calmness and sense of control over a situation.

For a deep breathing exercise find a comfortable sitting or lying position. Relax your shoulders, neck, jaw and face.  Slow your breathing and focus on the rise and fall of your abdomen. It may help you to place your hands over your upper abdomen (just below your rib cage) so you can feel physical movement as your breathe in and out. As you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth you should feel your hands rise  and fall respectively. You want to aim to use your diaphragm and you should feel your lower rib cage flaring outwards when you inhale. Spend 5-10 minutes each day practicing this.

Deep breathing and mediation are shown to have positive effects on stress and physical and mental health

There are other breathing exercise variations that can be explored. Multiple sources are available if you google or YouTube “deep breathing exercises”.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation:

Muscle tension can result from stress.  This exercise aims for you to spend a few moments each day consciously relaxing different muscle groups throughout your body. This exercise pairs perfectly with a deep breathing exercises as they can be done at the same time.

For this technique sit or lay in a comfortable position. Starting at your feet; contract the muscles of that area and hold for 5-10 seconds. Then relax these muscles for 10 seconds. Then repeat this process at the lower leg muscles, thigh muscles, buttock muscles, back muscles, abdomen muscles, chest muscles, upper back muscles, upper arm muscles, lower arm muscles, hand muscles (make a fist) and face muscles.

Alternatively you can perform a whole body version of this technique. This is where you tense all of the muscles in your body and hold it as long as possible without producing pain. Then start to gradually relax all of your muscles and focus on the feeling of tension leaving your body. Repeat this version of the exercise 3-5 times.

Body Awareness Exercises:

This distraction technique helps to bring our thoughts back to the present moment to reduce stress levels.

To perform this technique find a comfortable sitting or lying position. This exercise simply involves giving 100% of your attention to parts of your body. Start with your feet, focus on your soles, the space between your toes and the way your socks and/or shoes feel. Then shift your focus up your body. Your calves, are they tense, are your pants brushing again the skin? Then move again up to your thighs, bottom, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, face, forehead, mouth and tongue. Pause at each region for 10 or more seconds. Concentrate on the sensations you are experiencing. Again this exercise can be performed in combination with your deep breathing exercise.

This can be performed several time s day as a preventative measure or to perform after stress has begun to build.

Meditation:

Taking time out from your day to pause and mediate and be really useful for managing stress levels. It can distance you from your busy mind and refocus you on more important tasks.

Science has proven that mediation, after just 8 weeks of regular practice, reduces stress levels. It also shows that mediation “reprograms” the brain and changes some of the structures and chemical levels in the brain. This allows meditators to better deal with stress when it does occur .

An easy way to begin to mediate is to follow a guided audio or video which talks you through the meditation process. The phone application “Smiling Mind” and the website Headspace are good resources to begin with. There is no right or wrong way to mediate and once you have mastered following some guided mediation you may like to trial self-guided mediation.

Try meditating for 10 minutes tonight just before you go to bed. You may evem notice it takes less time for you to fall asleep!

Regular Exercise:

Regular exercise provides many health benefits. It has been shown to be encourage the release of endorphins (or happy hormones), improve fatigue, increase concentration, enhance overall cognitive function and improve mood. Exercise focuses the mind on the task at hand rather than the millions of other things on your mind. More intense exercise types demand deep breathing; the benefits of which we have talked about earlier in this article.

It encourages the release of endorphins

The current exercise recommendations for a healthy adult include a weekly target of:

  • 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (swimming, walking, yoga)
  • 75 minutes more vigorous aerobic activity (running, HIIT, aerobic dancing)
  • 2x strength training for each major muscle group

To simplify this even further aim for approximately 30 minutes of planned physical activity each day. It has been shown that as little as 5 minutes of aerobic activity can have anti-anxiety effects.

Spending time away from technology:

Dedicate a set time each day or week to being without technology. Detox from your phone, computer, smart watch, TV and music playing devices. Enjoy being present and not connected to a screen. Digital detoxes have been shown to reduce stress, improve productivity, improve personal relationships and improve sleep quality.

In an average day how many hours are you less that one meter from your phone? Most people will answer less than 5 hours and some none at all. Try spending a 30 minute block each week ‘unplugged’ and disconnected from technology.

Spend time in nature:

It is currently estimated that those people who live in first work countries spend up to 93% of their lifetime indoors. Research shows us that time spent outside and in nature provides a range of health benefits. Spending time in open, undeveloped spaces surrounded by vegetation reduces stress, improves memory, improves fatigue, improve mood and reduces the risk of other serious health disorders (like cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes and preterm birth.) Living near nature encourages more opportunity for physical activity and socializing. Science suggests that exposure to diverse bacteria and phytoncides is integral to the health benefits received from spending time with nature.

In Japan there is a practice called ‘shinrin yoku’ or forest bathing. This is where Japanese people will spend time in nature, away from technology and focusing on the sensory stimulus the forest provides (smell, sights, sound, touch and taste). Studies have been conducted on the practice of forest bathing with results showing both positive mental and physical health benefits.

The Key:

Make relaxation a part of your regular routine.Treat relaxation like you would your physical fitness routine. It takes practice but the health benefits come with repeated effort.

Maintain regular practice of the relaxation techniques described above, alternating between the different activities to avoid getting bored. Make a specific plan on how you will incorporate these techniques into your daily or weekly routine and commit to performing them. 10 minutes a day, if done regularly, is enough to help you manage your stress better!